In Janurary, 1969, when the National Association of Home Builders set up its first convention here in the then-new Astrodome complex, Joe Namath and the N.Y. Jets were upsetting the favored Baltimore Colts elsewhere in the Superbowl. Getting that major NAHB convention (50,000 attendees) to Houston was also a major victory for the Bayou City, which has a natural economic and spiritual rivalry with Dallas.
In and around Houston, nobody calls Dallas "Big D." It's more likely to be "little d" or something even less flattering. You get the idea of big city competition between the two biggest cities in Texas. Albeit the NAHB convention has since moved to Dallas (and soon goes to Las Vegas) but it will never forget that first year in Houston, when the city literally threw open its arms and said: "Glad y'all came; what can we do for you folks?"
Houston proved to be a sharp contrast to Chicago, scene of all previous home builder conventions. Less rollicking downtown nightlife; restricted dispensing of liquor (since changed); good restaurants in far-out places; long distances between almost everything; a down-at-the-heels Rice Hotel and an inadequate airport. But Houston had the Astrodome, the Astroworld Hall, the Astroworld Hotel, two competing daily newspapers, a growing Texas Medical Center, the NASA Space Center and evidence of new life in an old downtown.
Since 1969, a dozen 40-to-50-storey buildings (some of them quite spectacular) have gone up and gotten filled with tenants in downtown. Now there's a hollow-center Hyatt Regency Hotel, a downtown civic center (for both meetings and cultural activities), the Summit Arena for pro basketball, a great new hotel and shopping Galleria in the Westheimer (southwest) area and still no zoning. Many thousands of new garden apartments have been built and rented and new and resale housing has been booming in recent years to take care of the estimated 1,000 persons that move here each week.
A few years ago, Houston had more than its share of vacant garden apartments. Now the percentage is a respectable amenities of those units are positive. Tenants pay 26 to 29 cents a square foot a month for two-bedroom units, with the average price being less than $300 a month. Single (individual) metering is now general due to the rising electric rates. However, there's no rent control despite gradually rising rent levels.
There's also a recent trend to condominium conversions of both garden apartments and older high-rise buildings that need d some primping. Sales are reported good in this city that heretofore has not really participated in the swing to condo living that developed in other big cities. One developer cited the condo trend as evidence of Houston's "coming of age," with more people accepting the denser lifestyles found in New York, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia.
On a Saturday morning in mid-summer, the downtown drugstores are closed and you can cross any major Houston street without dodging a car.
But the new Shell, Pennzoil and other buildings grab your attention. The transition to tomorrow is under way and developer Gerald Hines - who is drawing up development plans for the Metro Center area of Washington around 12th and G streets NW - has already signed up Houston Oil and Minerals Corp. for space in a 60-story office structure that will be started later this year.
That building's 1.4 million square feet of rentable space nearly equals all the new space that downtown and some of the emerging shopping - business areas geared to the still expanding freeway system has been averaging 3.3 million square feet a year. Downtown occupancy now is about 98 per cent, which would be a dream goal in some big cities. Downtown space averages $9.50 to $11 a square foot and suburban space a dollar or two less, similar to the scale in Washington for new space.
Why has Houston hit the yellow brick road in almost all phases of real estate? Easy answers include natural confidence, ability to finance, aggressive leadership, a climate for development, lack of formal zoning laws, plenty of relatively inexpensive land for new development and a zeal of old industry to invest in downtown redevelopment.
But there's another bigger reason. The Texas Employment Commission reports that more than 34,000 new jobs have been added annually in the metro Houston area since 1970, with wholesale and retail trade, service and government activity showing the greatest growth.
Also mounting is the unobtrusive presence of foreign investors in real estate. The Houston Chronicle's real estate editor, Charlie Evans, recently reported that, in two years, foreing investors purchased some $300 million in office buildings, apartment complexes, shopping centers, office-warehouse projects and land near the city as well as farm land outside it. Represented among the buyers were Germans, Mexicans, Canadians, Briton, Australians, Swedes and Saudi Arabians.
One Houstonian who works in obtaining those investments said the goal of foreign buyers is a good return with more assurance of security can be obtained in other lands, where inflation and political developments are feared. Another Houston professional added, however, that the influx of foreign capital investments has also increased the asking prices on available properties.
Meanwhile, Houston residential builders grapple with the problems of rising prices of land, materials and labor, not unlike their counterparts in Washington and other cities enjoying a strong residential building market. There are also gripes about federal regulations.
But Houston builders are yet unscarred by problems regarding sewer capacity and water supply, mostly because the system is set up to enable them to develop new areas by making initial investments in water-sewer systems under a statewide program for new districts that then sell bonds.
Yet the developers and builders are hardly living in a dream world. Some already see a slackening in the demand for new houses and apartments and predict a cutback in construction before the end of the year if more evidence accumulates.
On the buyer side of the fence, one self-described veteran "industrial gypsy," had just moved into an expensive new house with his wife. He was moved to compliment the visiting builder, Doyle Stuckey, at their first meeting. But the just-moved-in breadwinner added in an aside to his interviewer that "we'll be unable to afford living in this house after I retire in a few years. No way."
Unoubtedly, that's one of the prices Americans pay to live in a booming economy, in Houston or Anywhere, U.S.A.